Updated 2:41 p.m.
From Grace Speights' office in downtown Washington, you can count the airplanes approaching the runway at Reagan National Airport. From the vantage, the Washington Monument is center in the foreground. Speights has little time to count planes. In addition to her role as managing partner of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius' Washington office, Speights is deputy chair of the firm's labor and employment practice and chair of the systemic employment litigation practice. She also sits on the advisory board and diversity committee.
Speights joined Morgan Lewis in 1984, became a partner in 1991 and, in 2008, she took over the leadership role of managing the Washington office's nearly 270 attorneys. Amid her managerial responsibilities she maintains a robust labor and employment practice, with a focus on defending clients against claims of discrimination.
Legal Times sat down with Speights in her office to talk about the firm’s business in D.C., diversity in the legal profession and the challenges of raising two kids.
How is business in the D.C. office?
Speights: Our office and our practice are thriving. The bulk of our office is regulatory work and under the current administration, the government is regulating. They are brining enforcement proceedings. That is good for an office like ours. We think this office is a gem. Our office is very busy. I can't think of any practice in our Washington office that isn't kicking on all cylinders. Our litigation and our labor and employment practices tend to be national. A lot of our litigation is not here in Washington.
Where does the Washington office fit into the overall view of the firm?
In terms of our strategic goals and outlook, Washington has always been a focus. Even if there are clients that the Washington office has never touched in the past, at some point they have a Washington issue and when they have that issue, you want to be able to say we have a Washington office that covers those regulatory issues. We are very good at building teams across offices. It doesn't matter where you are. It matters who has the expertise.
What is the importance of having a diverse law firm?
What we have found is that when you bring diverse people together on a team, you can get different perspectives. You bring the same kind of people on the team, and most of the time they all think alike. I'm generalizing. You have a better shot at getting diversity of thought in how to solve a client's problem if you bring diverse people to the team. That is one of the reasons we find diversity at least here very important. That comes from the top, from the chairman of our firm. The best talent and the best solutions are going to come when you have diverse thoughts and diverse thinking on your team.
Are clients driving this push for diversity?
I do think that clients having an emphasis on diversity has helped law firms to think about diversity. I don't believe that folks in law firms in the past were intentionally excluding diverse people. It just wasn't something they thought about. When clients say that this is important to us and our business, it has to be important to the law firm's business. We still have a long way to go. If you look at the numbers, the number of African American partners in this town is a little better than when I started practicing law, almost 31 years ago. Not that much better.
What effect has the recession had on law firms?
There is a lot more competition. Clients want to control their expenses so there is a lot more pressure to do alternative fee billing. I think those law firms that resist that will have a difficult time moving forward. We have to deal with the issue that many clients don't want to pay for first year lawyers. Classes have shrunk, but even so, we still have to find a way to bring new lawyers into the pipeline and train them. We have to be creative in how we do that.
Given the competition and demands on price, we have to be flexible and willing to do things differently. We have to watch expenses and make sure that we can distinguish ourselves from other law firms in order to compete. We believe that you can do that if you are hard on yourself and demanding nothing but excellent work and are willing to work with clients on alternative fees.
The pie is much smaller. A lot of our clients have taken work [in house] but they have also bulked up inside. A lot of what we didn't see 10 years ago are RFPs, requests for proposals, where you are bidding to get the work. Clients are shrinking the number of law firms that they are using. They are moving to a preferred provider list. If you're not on the list, you're not going to get the work. Clients are looking to control costs and have certainty in their budgets and it has put a lot of pressure on law firms to readjust how they do business. Some will survive and some won't.
How do you balance the responsibilities of your practice and your leadership role?
It's difficult, but I don't think it's any different from when I was juggling my clients and juggling my kids. I became managing partner a year after my youngest went off to college. When you love what you're doing, you find a way to manage. I love my practice. In our firm, most of the folks in management, with the exception of our chair and our managing partner for operations, practice even though we're managers. All of our office managing partners have a fulltime practice. That is our philosophy. In order to lead, you have to set a good example. Client service is our focus not management.
What was more challenging: raising two kids or managing the office?
The kids. I was fortunate, because my mom took care of my kids. My load was a lot lighter than other folks who don't have a mother or relative to help. It was very hard because I travel a lot and I still travel a lot. Ninety percent of my matters are outside of D.C. I found it more difficult as they became teenagers as opposed to when they were younger. Once they got into sports, those games and competitions could be anytime. Trying to juggle and get to those things was difficult. There were times when I did crazy things. I might be on the west coast at a client function and I would pay my own way to come back and go to something and get back on the plane to go back out. You do what you have to do. I remember having a big calendar in the kitchen so everyone see the schedule for the month. I'm not saying [managing the office] is easy, but it's a lot easier than raising kids.
This is part of a series of Q&A sessions Legal Times is conducting with D.C.-based law firm managing partners. Photo by The National Law Journal's Diego M. Radzinschi.